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With the holidays moving into full swing, millions of Americans are ordering gifts on online shopping websites, where fast shipping, variety, and easy price comparisons offer lots of convenience. But there's a growing risk that you may end up with a counterfeit good, not the real thing.

The sale of fake brand-name goods, which once seemed limited to occasional street carts and going-out-of-business stores, has increasingly expanded to major e-commerce platforms, such as Amazon and Walmart.com. The problem encompasses a wide range of products, everything from electronics to cosmetics to household items.

The odds of encountering counterfeits can be especially high if you buy through a third-party vendor—meaning other sellers besides the brand or the authorized retailer—on an online marketplace, according to a recent study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

After buying and testing products from third-party vendors on five popular online consumer websites, the GAO found that 20 out of 47 brand-name products purchased—including shoes, travel mugs, cosmetics, and UL-certified chargers—were counterfeit. For three of the four product types, at least one item that was purchased was determined to be counterfeit, according to the study.


Go to Consumer Reports' 2018 Holiday Central for updates on deals, expert product reviews, insider tips on shopping, and much more.
 

For consumers, the risks of fake goods aren’t just financial—they may also present a threat to your health and safety.

Take iPhone chargers, a commonly counterfeited item (PDF). A 2016 study by UL, a product testing company, found that fake Apple iPhone chargers had a 99 percent failure rate, meaning they failed one of two simple tests—an electrical strength test and a touch current test. A charger that fails even one of these tests could cause a fire or an electrical shock.

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Recognizing the problem, many online retailers are attempting to crack down on counterfeit sales.

“In order to detect bad actors and potentially counterfeit products, we make significant investments in machine learning and automated systems,” says an Amazon representative.

At Walmart, third-party sellers on the Marketplace are bound by a strict anti-counterfeiting policy that prohibits the sale of inauthentic products, according to a Walmart representative.

Still, the best protection is to stay vigilant yourself, especially as holiday shopping gears up. Follow these steps to reduce the risk of purchasing fake goods:

How to Avoid a Fake

Research the seller. When you visit an online shopping website, you might assume that you’re buying directly from that company or the brand itself, which is the best way to avoid ending up with a counterfeit, says Ana Serafin Smith, senior director of media relations at the National Retail Federation. But on some online shopping sites, you can be steered to a third-party vendor, which raises the risk of being sold a fake, as the GAO report found.

Of course, many third-party vendors selling on online marketplaces are legitimate, and some may even be authorized retailers. But before you click buy, make sure you know who the seller really is—and if it's a third-party vendor, check out the company, says Smith.

Amazon customers can spot third-party vendors by looking at the box that has the “Add to Cart” as well as the box "Other Sellers on Amazon"—the seller’s name will be listed next to the words “Ships from and sold by." At Walmart, you'll see "Sold and shipped by" under the "Add to Cart" button.

On both Amazon and Walmart.com, shoppers can click on the vendor's name to view its profile, where you can see feedback from other buyers, as well as contact information and return policies. Try out the customer service by asking a questions about a product.

Be wary of discounts. Find the item’s current retail price by checking authorized retailers—they are often listed on the brand’s website. If a third-party seller is selling a new product for less than the established price, that could be an indication that it’s a fake. Even a small discount may be a red flag, since more counterfeiters are charging almost as much as the real thing in an effort to trick customers, says Julie Zerbo, founder at "The Fashion Law," an online business and legal source covering the fashion industry.

Scan the customer reviews. Many people rely on Amazon customer reviews to find reliable products. But the reviews on product pages are aggregated regardless of who the seller is. If you look closely, you may see reviews that are wildly different for the same product, which could be due to quality control issues, durability issues, and different customer experiences—or this could signal a problem.

Examine the product's packaging. Brands generally put their logos on packaging, not just the products. So if your purchase arrives in anonymous wrapping, that could be red flag. 

If you do see a brand logo, compare it with the one pictured on the company’s website. Misspellings and differences in design could mean you’ve got a fake good. Also look for certifications, use-by dates, and attached warranties, which should arrive with the product. In some cases, you can verify the serial number through the manufacturer’s website.

"If the product has been opened, is missing a certification or guarantee stamp, if there are no instructions included, there's a chance it's a counterfeit," Smith says.

Know the hallmarks of the real product. Before you shop online, get familiar with the product’s appearance, including the brand markings and any unique details. Genuine manufacturers will put their logo in specific places, like hardware detailing on a purse or on a tag inside the product. That way, if a counterfeit arrives on your doorstep, you might be able to spot it more quickly.

Check the details carefully, though. "Counterfeits may use different materials, such as imitation leather, or cheap hardware," says Kimberly Gianapoulos, director at the Government Accountability Office. 

How to Claim a Refund

Did you do your due diligence and still get duped? Follow these steps to claim a refund, as well as help crack down on counterfeiters:

Reach out to the vendor. Your first move is to notify the seller that the item you received appears not to be genuine. It can be helpful to include photos. The vendor might not have known that the product was a fake and may quickly refund you.

But if the seller denies selling a counterfeit and refuses a refund, or doesn’t respond at all, escalate your complaint. If you made your purchase from an online marketplace like Amazon or Walmart, you can report the third-party seller and initiate a complaint or possible return. Both Amazon and Walmart investigate counterfeit claims and will suspend the vendor from the site if they are found to be selling fakes.

To report to Amazon, you can request a refund under their A to Z Guarantee within 90 days after the maximum estimated delivery date. And if you're shopping with Walmart.com, visit the Walmart Help Center to file a claim. Smith also recommends reporting counterfeits to your local Better Business Bureau. 

Get help from payment companies. If you are denied a refund, and you used a credit card, you can dispute the charge, and the card company will investigate. For those who used PayPal, consumers who bought a counterfeit product are covered through the company’s Purchase Protection policy.

Contact government regulators. Consumers can also file a complaint with their state consumer protection office; you can find the link to yours at USA.gov. You can also report online vendor counterfeits to other federal regulators at STOPfakes.gov

Even if you don’t get help with your individual complaint, letting officials know about the products might help spark a broader crackdown, which would make e-commerce shopping safer for all consumers.